20 December 2006

Rudolph: “….You’ll go down in history”

Because we are so often witnesses and recorders of the folly and perfidy of lesser mortals, it has often seemed to me that historians bear a special responsibility to honour their commitments.

Yet an exhaustive bibliographic search (Worldcat and several periodical databases) turned up no effort by historians to fulfill this promise to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a task this disquisition will dispatch in brief compass.[1]

The name Rudolf/ph is of course closely identified with the house of Habsburg, being the name of the first Habsburg, Rudolf I (1218-1291), a not-quite-exact contemporary of St Thomas of Aquinas (1225-1274) by whom he was not educated, and of many later Habsburg rulers and nobles, only some of whom, Rudolph II (1552-1612) for example, were tinged by insanity.

So it hardly surprising that our Rudolph was of Habsburg stock, that is to say, of the stock of the extensive Habsburg menagerie. The glowing nose had nothing to do with the more than occasional Habsburg penchant for Branntwein, and everything to do with a deeply recessive gene, only recently identified at locus AQ417c.

Rudolph mit rotem Näschen was born and spent his early years at the Habsburg hunting estate in Kozel, Bohemia, but as his special gift became apparent in early adolescence, he was moved to the Gestüt (stud farm) of the Spanische Hofreitschule at Piper, Steiermark.[2] Here he gamboled for several years while being part of an intensive effort to breed his distinctive gene into the blood line of the Lippizaners. The project failed, though Rudolph could hardly be faulted given his frequent and spirited dalliance with the fillies. If only they had involved another Habsburg subject, Augustinian friar Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), genetics wouldn’t still be taught through the common pea (Pisum sativum: L). So today one is reduced to imagining those white Lippizaners going through their elaborate Reitkunst routines with the darkened arena illuminated only by their reddish nasal glows.

Rudolph next surfaces as part of the household of Archduke Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, Hungary and Bohemia (1858-1889). To his eternal irritation, Rudolph was implicated in the Mayerling affair, where he unwittingly served as a decoy from the route taken by the Archduke and his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, to their fatal assignation.[3] Rudolph misled the trackers to Baden bei Wien (which, not coincidently, was the setting of Venus in Pelze by Graf Leopold von Sacher-Masoch). This took place on January 29th, so Rudolph had had a month to recover from his annual nocturnal emission with Santa Claus, which he was then doing on a seasonal basis. Even though he was entirely innocent, Emperor Franz Josef was implacable, and insisted that Rudolph be banished to the ‘ends of the earth' – which turned out to be the far north of Canada where he acquired his universal fame. Oh felix culpa!

But a few years later, because of an unfortunate falling out (or more probably in) with one of the elves, he was exiled again. The outplacement counselor advised him to ‘play to your strengths’ and so to seek employment in a red-light district, something of which Rudolph had been previously unaware. He lived out his last years happily in Hamburg, where he was engaged to illuminate the entrance to an establishment in the Reeperbahn which catered to appetites regarded as unusual even in that tolerant quarter.

So we can see that Rudolph did indeed 'go down in history'!

[1] The linchpin of the extensive evidence for this account is the complete absence of a entry for Rudolph mit rotem Näschen in the German Wikipedia, even though there are articles in other Teutonic language editions (Swedish, Danish) -- and even Finnish, where he is known as Petteri Punakuono. The omission is clearly documented in the ‘Diskussion’ pages and usually attributed to lingering Habsburg resentment over his role in the Mayerling affair. The lack of a German historical account can also be attributed to the most common German version of the tale concluding with Rudolph still on display in the zoo – how degrading! (Und man bewundert Rudolph / Heute immer noch im Zoo), rather than going ‘down in history.’
[2] The fastidious will cavil that the Gestüt only moved to Piper from Lipizza [Slovenia] in 1920, but there is a well-attested oral tradition in WestSteiermark that Piper was chosen because it was the site of a several (reindeer) generation pilot project which must have included Rudolph.
[3] Rudolph’s role as a decoy was only published several years after the event by Karl Kraus in a proto-issue of Die Fackel. It is well known that Kraus took great interest in Hapsburg matters, and so his authority must be accepted. The Habsburgs of course destroyed all copies of this proto-issue which could be found, and the only known survivor succumbed in the disastrous fire at the Herzogin Anna-Amalia-Bibliothek in Weimar in September 2004.

"To be perpetually talking sense runs out the mind, as perpetually ploughing and taking crops runs out land. The mind must be manured, and nonsense is very good for this purpose."
James Boswell, Journal, 22 March 1775. (The Ominous Years, 1774-1776 (London, 1963) p.89)